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The ancient Egyptians believed that after death a person’s heart would be placed on a balance scale and weighed against a feather—the feather of Ma’at. Only the person whose heart was free of guilt, and thus lighter than a feather, would be granted entry into the afterlife.

Perhaps this ancient legend influenced Dr. Duncan MacDougall. In 1907, this Haverhill, Massachusetts, physician conducted a series of experiments to determine just how much a soul weighs. When he determined that a patient’s death was imminent, he placed the patient’s entire bed on an industrial scale that could measure to within a single gram. Comparing the weight of six patients just before and just after death, he determined that each had lost 21 grams. Since he believed the soul left the body at death, he concluded that the soul must weigh 21 grams.

It’s easy to understand why so many people have shared this view of the soul for so long. Most of us don’t encounter dead bodies anywhere but at funerals. And at funerals, we often hear people say, “He [or she] looks so natural.” But of course, we say that to comfort the bereaved or to compliment the funeral director, because, in fact, anyone who has seen a dead body knows that it— note how we use the impersonal pronoun— is fundamentally unnatural. Whether it’s the soul or something else, something is missing.

When we analyze what makes up a human being, we can catalogue the dozen or so organs, 200 bones, 600 muscles, and innumerable nerves in our bodies that are organized into “systems”—the nervous system, the circulatory system, the respiratory system, and so on. But that simply describes the various components of the body and how they function. Even though all the bones and muscles are present in a corpse, the person cannot be found there.

Intuitively, we know that each of us is more than a collection of muscles and bones, organs and enzymes, memories and skills. That “more” is what we often think of as “the soul.”

The Traditional View

For thousands of years, people from many religious traditions have viewed the soul as some separate, conscious entity that inhabits the body. Many of those traditions view the soul as immaterial. That is, it does not consist of matter at all, and thus has neither mass nor weight—not even 21 grams. These traditions also view the body as transitory, while the soul is eternal, immortal. Perhaps that’s because, when a person dies, the ugly process of decay that overtakes a physical body repels us, while our fond memories of the now absent person make us wish they lived on.

Psychologically, then, it’s appealing to distinguish between an immaterial, transcendent spirit or soul and the very material and temporal body. Different cultures have expressed these wishes in different ways. Hindus, Buddhists, and other Eastern cultures disparage the physical part of our human nature, perhaps because the body is a source of suffering. For believers in these religions, the purpose of living a good life is to escape the body and its physical suffering.

While differences exist between the view of the soul held by these Eastern religions and Christianity, the majority of Christians adopt the basic concept. They view the soul as an immaterial entity that inhabits the body during this life and at death departs to continue a conscious existence elsewhere— usually understood to be in either heaven or hell.

The Biblical View

The Bible, both Old and New Testaments, offers a radical alternative to this supposed dual human nature of a body and a soul. The biblical account begins with the Creation story in Genesis: “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).

Let’s examine in detail the content of this text.

God formed the man from the dust of the ground.

Genesis pictures God personally involved in “forming” the first human beings, like a sculptor producing a work of art. For His sculpture, God employed the most earthly of elements— the soil itself. In naming the first human Adam, which means “red,” God made clear the connection between life and matter, the physical earth. In the Old Testament a person’s name often described his or her character. So by naming this first human being Adam, or “red” (for the color of the clay), God forever linked humanity literally as one “of the earth.”

Even more surprising, the Genesis account pictures God “getting His hands dirty,” personally molding clay into the form of a human being. And in Genesis 1:26, 27, we discover that this first human was in some sense God’s self-portrait, for Scripture says that we were made “in his image.” It’s astonishing to think that the Maker of all things would deign to lend His own image to this earthen sculpture. But more wonder follows.

God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.

When a medic administers artificial respiration, “breathing” for a victim of trauma, we sometimes say that he is giving “the kiss of life.” Anyone who has studied cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), and certainly anyone who has administered it, recognizes the accuracy of that phrase. And it is this very act, this intimate contact, that Genesis suggests. God made us in His own likeness—what a staggering honor—and then the Source of all life breathed that life into His work of art.

Only then, the text tells us, did man become a living being, or as some translations have it, a living soul. Thus, the Bible does not depict the soul as distinct and separate from the body. On the contrary, from the beginning account in Genesis, the Bible celebrates the union of the physical and the spiritual, viewing human beings holistically rather than as an assembly of parts. The Creation narrative presents this combination, not as the forcing together of hostile components, but as the joyful union of complementary elements. In Genesis the body and the soul are one. God didn’t give Adam a soul. He gave Adam life, and Adam became a soul.

Despite this, we may still feel that the soul must exist without the body, when separated from matter. However, we commonly come in contact with something that demonstrates the necessity of the unity of body and soul.

An example

I’m writing this article on a device called a computer. A working computer consists of three components. First is the hardware, the physical equipment—the computer itself, a monitor, and a keyboard. Next is the software—a series of instructions that are installed on the computer so that it can perform its functions. Finally, we need electricity. Subtract any of these three, and the computer is “dead,” nonfunctional. For all practical purposes, it ceases to exist. It’s as though it had never been a computer in the first place.

The same thing is true of us humans. Our physical bodies provide the hardware. Our brains are loaded with “software”—instincts, memories, and knowledge that make us who we are. Finally, God gives us life, the electrical current if you will. Remove any of these three, and we cease to function. We cease to exist.

Without electricity, the computer’s memory and the instructions and data stored in it all vanish. Similarly, when our bodies die, our brains cease to function. The memories, the knowledge, and all the information that make us who we are, disappear. There is no conscious soul out there somewhere any more than a computer has an “intelligent” existence apart from the electricity that powers it.

The Bible affirms the view that consciousness ceases at death. It declares, “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished” (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6).

Oh, and for those wondering how Dr. MacDougall’s 21-gram weight of the soul compared with the weight of Ma’at’s feather, here’s the answer. The Egyptian hieroglyphs always depict Ma’at holding a large ostrich feather— which, scientists tell us, weighs just a fraction over six grams. In other words, Dr. MacDougall’s 21-gram “soul” weighed three and a half times as much as the feather of Ma’at. It would have tipped the scale against entry into the afterlife!

But we need not worry. God does not see us as immaterial records of right and wrong, nor does He think less of us because we are physical beings. He designed us to be that way. Indeed, in his gospel, John tells us that “the Word became flesh,” that God’s own Son miraculously became a physical being in order to demonstrate God’s love for us.

The Bible repeatedly affirms what a great privilege it is to be a soul. For to be human, to be a soul, is to be an object of God’s love, giving us the opportunity to enjoy an intimate relationship with the One who made us.

What Is a Soul?

by Ed Dickerson
From the June 2012 Signs